March 16, 2015

So much of my Christian journey has been marked by the way those in power have used their social privilege to either protect themselves or promote those in their families or their inner circles. I’ve written about nepotism in this space before. Others (click here and here) have raised lots of important questions about nepotism and related forms of cronyism in the church. These practices live directly at the intersection of a leaders’ joy in seeing his or her children/pals following the Lord and those unflinching words James wrote about favoritism. And every time I think I’ve seen it all when it comes to those in power using their privilege to fast-track a family member to prominence, I discover a new variation on the theme. So because I keep running into it in churches large and small, I thought I’d volley a new question about the subject, below. If you’re a leader who has placed a family member or close personal friend in a position of responsibility in your church, I’d especially love to hear from you.

Not long ago, I sat in a very large church listening to a sermon given by the child of the church’s head pastor. This individual grew up in the home of a master communicator, and had obviously learned the family business from the inside out. The message was solid, but as I looked around me, I wondered how many other gifted teachers were sitting out there in the crowd who would never, ever be given an opportunity to speak because they would never have the kind of privileged access this individual did.

parent childA famous mother or father handing the microphone to his/her child is one example of this two-tiered system, but it is far from the only one. Hiring the pastor’s kid to do janitorial work around a church building can be just as problematic, especially if there is a qualified unemployed man with both a servant’s heart and a family to feed who wants the job. Giving a ministry role to a relative or pal without looking around like you mean it to see who the Lord has brought to your congregation to do the work is another. Maybe your sister-in-law is really the best person for the task. Then again, maybe not. But in my experience, for every one truly qualified person who has been fast-tracked to a plum position due to blood line or BFF status, there are a dozen more who shouldn’t be in their roles. In doing so, it seems to me they’re robbing gifted, experienced, qualified people from the opportunity to serve. We aren’t gathered so a particular family flourishes, but so that the body of Christ does.

Promoting* your family members if you are in a position of influence doesn’t flat-out violate Scripture’s commands, but it certainly doesn’t enhance the notion that there is equal opportunity for all believers to offer their gifts in a local church. In the small and mid-sized churches where I’ve spent the bulk of my time, the congregations that run as family businesses reflect the dynamics and dysfunction of the family in charge. It means there’s a two-tier system at play: the family and those who’ve learned to function in that family ecosystem gets to sit at the adult table, and everyone else clusters around the kiddie table. Yet we all believe Scripture doesn’t talk about two tables, or better seats for those with financial, social or spiritual privilege. There’s only one table, and there is a seat at this table for each one of us.

When I came to faith in Jesus as a teen, I took seriously his words about becoming part of his family. I knew from reading the Bible I was a child of a Father who didn’t play favorites. I know of no clearer way to state my thesis about familial privilege in the church than this: Nepotism is the way of kings, not servants. It is of the world, and sows worldly weeds among the seeds God is planting.

I’ve heard people proffering all sorts of loophole-seeking exemptions to the nepotism issue: “No guarantee a non-family member will do a better job than my cousin”, “My son knows what I expect”, “God loves families, and our clan is modeling healthy Christianity to our community”. How I wish the rationalizing would stop, and those leveraging their privilege would call it what it really is. I love my own family, broken and imperfect as we are. I am positive if any of my children or grandchildren ever desired to serve in the same ministry as me, I would be unreservedly biased in their regard. I know there would no way to navigate church conflict and critique as if we were all disconnected from these family relationships.

Am I wrong? I’d LOVE some pushback from those who’ve served in ministry with a family member. I’ve heard before from those who’ve been shut out of ministry roles or wounded by nepotism in the church. For those of you who don’t have a problem placing family members in positions of power in your congregation, talk to me about the benefits you see. How do you ensure that the church doesn’t become a family business, but functions as the body of Christ?  Is there an upside to nepotism in your church you’d be willing to celebrate in the comments below?


* Nepotism is not the same thing as celebrating your family member’s gifts and accomplishments with sensitivity among your congregation. I’m not suggesting pretending those family relationships don’t exist. I am suggesting that using your position to grease the skids into a position for your kid may be problematic for the rest of your (non-related) congregation. 

September 3, 2013

The pastor’s wife leads the worship ministry at their small congregation. Or…the pastor’s son-in-law becomes the youth minister.

It’s only natural that family members serve together at a local congregation, isn’t it?

Even some of Jesus’ first disciples were brothers. The prayer and ideal is of families sharing an active, engaged faith. Wouldn’t the logical conclusion of this shared faith be shared ministry?

Yes. And no.

Did you know that the word nepotism has its roots in medieval church practice? One pope even went so far as to appoint his nephews, ages 14 and 16, as cardinals.

A husband-wife team ministering together can be a beautiful thing. It can model a healthy marriage and the joy that comes from serving together. It can go terribly wrong when the relationship puts a stranglehold on ministry growth, for example, a pastor’s wife who runs the women’s ministry with an iron fist in order to ensure her position is never challenged. Who is there to remove the pastor’s wife from her role if she doesn’t do a good job?

We attended a church that had a pair of brothers-in-law and a set of sisters on the paid staff of 7. Further complicating the situation was the fact that one of the pastor’s kids was dating the child of one of the relatives. The elder board at the church included relatives of these relatives. Disclosure here – this nepotism-heavy arrangement included me as I was a part-time staffer and my husband was an elder. When I started getting a paycheck as part of my service to the church, both Bill and I were pretty naive about how these interconnected blood relationships would affect how decisions were made at the church.

It didn’t take long to discover that not all staff meetings happened in the church building. Some also happened at family birthday parties and during vacations. Plans were hatched and decisions were made in the context of these tight family bonds. I learned through the painful tutorial of experience at the church that blood ties had a powerful insulating quality if someone was toxic in his or her ministry role. Protecting the family was a more powerful motivation than protecting the sheep.

Even with that horrible negative example, I believe there is great power in family doing ministry together. It can be an amazing, countercultural expression of shalom as long as the focus stays on the kingdom, not on tribe.

Has your experience with family members heading ministry roles in a church been positive or negative? Does your church have a policy limiting family from paid staff positions, or a history of encouraging the practice?

*Note: This is an adaptation of a post that originally ran in February, 2010. 

May 2, 2016

What do these people have in common?
  • The single woman in her mid-thirties with $40,000 worth of seminary debt now working as an office manager for a software vendor.
  • The former youth pastor now installing replacement windows for a home-improvement company.
  • The veteran minister with 20 years of pastoral experience now an anonymous attender at another congregation after losing his job when a nasty split took place in his old church.
Each aimed at vocational ministry, believing this was how God was asking them to serve him. Now each is adjusting to life on the other side of that dream, calling, or desire.


Since leaving our former leadership roles in a local church more than a decade ago, my husband and I have talked to many, many people who were once either in college or seminary preparing to enter full-time vocational ministry and couldn’t find a job upon graduation, or those who had been in ministry and for a whole host of reasons were no longer in a leadership role. Some were no longer part of an institutional church in any way.


The lure of the promise to spiritually-minded emerging adults that they are destined to be world changers, given them at conferences, retreats and youth group meetings as they grew up, meshes with the ambition that characterizes this life stage. I’ve informally followed the trajectory of some of the amazing, committed students I knew from my days working at Trinity International University who were preparing for vocational ministry. A percentage did connect with paying ministry positions after graduation and are still employed by a church or parachurch ministry five or ten years later. Others found a ministry position, only to discover that the cold reality of harsh politics and/or dwindling church finances pushed them out of a job before the ink was fully dry on their degree. And too many faced a long hall full of closed doors. These people have moved into other lines of work, hampered by the challenging combination of a difficult economy and a degree that doesn’t always translate neatly to other fields.


Some who’ve been in full-time vocational ministry remain stuck in their roles because of that latter reality. (If this is you, I commend you to the excellent work of sociologist Josh Packard and Todd Ferguson, who are compiling stories and data of those who feel trapped by their job and/or finished with institutional religion: click here for more info.) What remains of our faith when we’re not holding the mic and running the show at a church anymore? Packard and Ferguson are asking good questions about this, and working to listen well to the answers.


Scripture verses like “It is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another” (Ps. 75:7) can imply to church attenders, would-be and ex-leaders alike that whoever is in charge at a church or ministry is obviously God’s Pick for the job, and all others are kept from the position solely by his sovereignty. Besides being a terrible bit of eisegesis (Psalm 75 is about the righteous judgement of God, not a guarantee of job security for a pastor), I’ve seen these kinds of passages used to build defensive moats from Bible verses around bad leaders.


I know what it is to feel forced out of a ministry role by nepotism and bad church politics. It took years (and some time with a wonderful counselor) to process my own regret and sift my identity from the seeming debris of church ministry. There were times when I wasn’t sure how much of my faith would survive. But what has survived was real. The rest – my need to be needed, noticed, heard, valued – were good gifts from the One who made me, but needed some refining. In his love for me, he has and continues to do so.


My informal conversations with those who are would-be leaders facing closed doors and those who were once leaders but are no more circle toward questions of identity and regret. Who are you without the position? Were your efforts a noble waste? Can you reclaim your investment of money, time, and desire? Who is God? What is your relationship with the Church and your community to be now?


I hope to dig a little further into these questions in coming blog posts. (Stay tuned.) For today, I’d like to leave one question on the table for those who were once in a position of Church leadership (lay or paid) but aren’t any more: If you could hit the “reset” button on your church leadership experience, what one thing would you change?   


October 23, 2015

Ten years ago, I imagined I had maybe 75% of a book in me. I’d written a few plays, lots of articles, and some curriculum. But a book was an entirely different animal, and I honestly didn’t think I was quite ready to tackle 50,000 words on a specific theme at that point in my life.

We’d relocated back “home” to the Chicago area in 2004 after nearly a decade living in Wisconsin. I’d taken a part-time job at a seminary bookstore and was using the rest of my work time doing what free-lance writers do – looking for writing work. Oh, and writing. After a pair of messy, difficult church experiences that bookended our time in Wisconsin (one church imploded, the other was being suffocated by nepotism), I was in the midst of sifting through the chaotic mess of it all and trying to tune my ears to hear again Jesus’ words, “Follow me”. Though I love the Bible, I didn’t have the stomach to spend much time in Paul’s didactic letters. I just needed someone to tell me a story and allow me to get lost in it for a while. I needed new words for my soul. As a result, I ended up spending lots of time reading the Psalms and meditating via journal on the parables of Jesus.

A different grief was going on simultaneous to this sorrow. My daughter and her new husband were about to tackle the daunting process of obtaining a Permanent Resident Card (popularly known as a Green Card) for him. He’d come across the border without documentation into the U.S. from Mexico. The two had met at work, and married soon after. They and their infant son, our first grandchild, had relocated from Wisconsin where we were living to New Mexico, then El Paso, where they hoped to begin navigating the paperwork jungle that is our current immigration system. It didn’t take long before we all realized that this was not a D-I-Y project. They needed an immigration lawyer – preferably not a fly-by-night practitioner whose office was next to a currency exchange in a strip mall.

In the midst of this, I happened across a writing contest a start-up faith-based publisher was running. They were looking for a couple of sample chapters from writers who’d never had a book published. I felt a nudge. It had been months since I’d felt that nudge from God to step out. My grief, anxiety, and disorientation had muted his voice. But the nudge was unmistakably not mine. I took my raw notes from the parables and gave myself a couple of weeks to see if there were a couple of sample chapters in them. There were, though I wasn’t sure there was an entire book. Nonetheless, the nudge came again: fill out the entry form and hit the ‘send’ button. I did, then promptly put the entire thing on the back burner.

Meanwhile, a friend at the bookstore was in the process of working through visa issues on behalf of her foreign-born fiancee, and recommended a downtown immigration lawyer they’d been using. I made an appointment with him, and was grateful to learn a consultation with him would only cost me fifty bucks. On a bleak late-November day, I headed into Chicago’s loop to meet the lawyer and learn if he’d be able to help the young family – and how much this was going to cost. We wanted to help, but had no idea where the money would come from. The meeting with the lawyer went well, and I tried not to faint when he detailed his fees. Where were we going to get the money to get this process started? I was fighting back tears as I walked through the office to pay the clerk for the lawyer’s time when my cell phone rang. It was my youngest son.

“Mom, this guy just called and said you were a finalist in some writing contest. He wants you to call him back right away.”

God has a time for everything, a perfect schedule. He is never too soon, never too late. The when of His will is as important as the what and the how. – Richard Halvorsen

The content of my son’s call was exciting, to be sure, but it was the timing of it that still takes my breath away. Three seemingly-unrelated themes – the legal issues my daughter’s family was facing, my grief over our recent church experiences, and my writing life had suddenly converged in an unexpected moment of shalom. There was no instant fix or sitcom-neat happy ending for any of the complex situations I was facing, but there came a powerful awareness that God was with me in the midst of it, at work in the tangle and debris and heartbreak in ways I couldn’t begin to comprehend.

* * * * * * *

I didn’t win the writing contest, but the publisher offered me a contract for my first book a month after that phone call. Then he invited me to write a sequel. “I believe you’re a career writer,” he told me.

To celebrate the anniversary of these two books, I’d like to send the set to one winner. Click here to send me your name and snail mail address before midnight, October 31. I’ll draw one name at random, and gift these two books offering a contemporary devotional look at many of the parables Jesus told during his ministry.



If you’d like to learn more about these books, click here and here. Thanks to all who’ve read them. It’s been a joy to hear from readers who’ve been strengthened and encouraged by them.


February 4, 2013

We live as exiles. We’re called to be pilgrims.

I am journeying through Scripture chronologically in order to explore our exile experience. I’ll also offer some helpful thoughts about how Christ can reshape that identity and reorient our journey so we live as pilgrims. To read earlier posts in the series, go to the “Blog Categories” pull-down menu in the right column of this screen and click on “Pilgrim’s Road Trip”.

* * * * * * *


When she was pregnant, the rock `em sock `em twins within Rebekah gave her no rest. When she asked the Lord what was happening to her, he told her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” (Gen. 25:23)

There would be no confusion about which twin was which. The older twin was a red, hirsute wild man of a baby given the name Esau, or “hairy”, by his parents Isaac and Rebekah. The younger twin was a milder, paler child who emerged from the womb holding the heel of his barely-older brother. They named number two Jacob, meaning “he grasps by the heel”, supplanter, deceiver.

I wonder if Isaac and Rebekah reflected on that word from God as they were raising these two polar opposites. Surely they must have, though the divide-and-conquer favoritism each parent showed toward a specific son seemed to have

more to do with personality and preference than it did prophecy. Isaac cherished man’s man Esau. Rebekah coddled the less-macho homeboy Jacob. A lifetime of being one parent’s favorite boiled over between the brothers when Esau devalued, then traded his legal rights as heir and executor to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew. To seal the deal as Isaac was dying, Rebekah coached her younger son in an elaborate scheme that would gain him his father’s blessing. This blessing would be an empowering “yes” over his life he’d carry as a guarantee over his future as head of the family. Rebekah’s scheme makes her a candidate for the stage mother Hall of Fame. (And it isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement about the state of her relationship with her aging husband, either.) He who was named supplanter wasn’t the only heel-grabber here. Rebekah did a little heel-grabbing, too.

When Esau found out that he’d been played by his mother and brother, he breathed threats against Jacob. Though he hadn’t valued his role, and had eroded relationships in the family by marrying two contentious Hittite women, he was understandably hurt and angry. Rebekah, who’d always held her favorite son in clenched fists, realized that the only way to save her Jacob was to send him far, far away:

Now then, my son, do what I say: Flee at once to my brother Laban in Harran. Stay with him for a while until your brother’s fury subsides. When your brother is no longer angry with you and forgets what you did to him, I’ll send word for you to come back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?” (Gen. 27:43-45)

She then added a bit of additional commentary to these instructions when she told her frail husband, “I’m disgusted with living because of these Hittite women. If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living.” (Gen. 27:46) I’d like to think that just maybe there was an apology or expression of regret for her manipulation that preceded these words, but it is not recorded here.

What is recorded is that Jacob is sent away from his family from Beersheva to Haran, a distance of 500 or so miles (give or take) back to the family’s relatives nto a kind of exile in order to save his life and find a suitable wife. Isaac sent Jacob with a second blessing, which served to further enrage Esau. In response, Esau married a couple of more wives apart from his parents’ blessing as if to underscore his disgust with them both.

Rebekah lost what she’d worked so hard to keep. This would be another story of nothing-new-under-the-sun family dysfunction if it weren’t for the fact that there was a larger story at work in the family, even in the midst of all the conniving and favoritism. It was a story that began years earlier with God’s call to his grandfather Abram, a call that gave him – and all of his generations following him – the identity of pilgrims.

Even if it took exile to live into that truth, God was at work in the mess and manipulation in this family. In spite of who they were, and because of who he is. In the messes of my own life, this is a wonderfully encouraging reality.

Have you ever had to flee a relationship or situation because of favoritism or nepotism? When you reflect on that situation today, how might you see God at work on your behalf in spite of the mess and manipulation of others? 

March 21, 2012

Yesterday, the Out of Ur blog ran a post about one of the key reasons for the demise of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral. The author of the post wrote, “A former Crystal Cathedral board member believes family dynamics led, in part, to the decline of the ministry.” After summarizing the low points of the long, messy decline of this particular megachurch, the writer asks readers to offer their responses to questions including

Would you want to be part of a church that’s essentially a family business? Are there strengths to this model we may not recognize? And what can be done to ensure ministries with leaders from the same family do not suffer the same fate as the Crystal Cathedral?

I posted a brief response at Our Of Ur referring to my experience a decade ago serving on the staff where most of the others on the paid staff were relatives that came from  two interconnected families. I did blog about the questions left in the wake of the experience a couple of years ago. In case you don’t feel like clicking over to read that post, I’ll summarize: Nepotism made working at the church a terrible, TERRIBLE experience.

After that experience, my husband and I have agreed that we will not join a congregation where multiple family members are paid staff or in leadership (elder) roles. If there is, say, a pair of family members receiving a paycheck or making directional decisions in a church, we will be asking lots of hard questions about how the congregation is protected from the potential toxicity of nepotism. Even if this spousal or parent-child pair is gifted by God to do the job, and they both happen to be the best choice for their respective positions, I have no qualms about asking questions like, “What safeguards are in place to make sure that these two family members cannot enforce their joint decisions on others? When was the last time one or both were told ‘no’? How did they handle it? What happens when others detect that they’ve shared sensitive information with one another after being specifically asked not to? Do you believe the decision-makers in the church have the will to remove one or both of them from their positions if need be? Why?”

(Yep. It was pretty terrible.)

I love seeing families working and worshiping together. But there are lots and lots of wonderful, God-honoring ways to do this that do not include allowing a family’s mortgage payment and electric bill to be solely on their church paycheck, or where a congregation becomes the stage upon which a family forms its identity.

I’d love your thoughts on this topic. Have you had a positive experience with a family-run church? What made it work?

August 25, 2010

Q: Would you drive 45+ minutes to attend an ideal church service each week or would you become a part of a church community with whom you differed on some points of doctrine and practice right in your own backyard?

Though we’ve all been told that consumer Christianity is a bad thing, the truth is that since the Reformation, Protestant believers have often sought out the fellowship of like-minded compadres. We also know that that the thousands of different flavors of fellowship can be micro-variants of one another- kind of like choosing between vanilla bean, French vanilla, vanilla-flavor and Madagascar vanilla ice cream. I can point to streets in my county where there are at least 4 different evangelical congregations within a mile or two of one another. All affirm the same core beliefs, assent to most of the same doctrine, and probably sing at least one Chris Tomlin song each Sunday morning but yet, there they are: a veritable Baskin-Robbins of worship. In a culture like ours where we have the luxury of choice in our church affiliations, it isn’t usually the nuances of theological difference between the congregations that helps us decide we belong with a particular group. It is more often the sense of community, of belonging.

And if our choices get stripped from us, say, in a wave of persecution or a serious economic collapse, I am convinced that those who are part of a healthy spiritual community will flourish. In fact, it is this reality that has put Bill and I back on the road to find a church home, bone-weary of the journey as we are. 

For two and a half years, Bill and I made the schlep to an Anglican congregation that was at least 45 minutes from our home. Our Sunday morning drive was equivalent to the amount of time we actually spent at church. We appreciated the church’s sacramental approach to worship, and the fact that the church was just a little bit different than the evangelical/Charismatic (and throw in a couple of fundamentalist groups for good measure) congregations of which we’d always been a part. The fifty-mile round-trip drive each week was our way of exercising the lovely luxury of choice.

That luxury had a serious downside; one I don’t think we fully realized when we first began attending the church. The huge negative is that the distance made it extremely difficult to form meaningful relationships. (We did try hosting a small group for a while, but everyone who attended lived at least a half an hour’s drive away from our home.)

Struggling through the decision to try to find a church closer to home was a tough one – we had months of anguished conversation about it in our home. Bill enjoyed being a part of the congregation’s leadership advisory team and still misses the worship. Though I appreciated the liturgy as a way to connect with God, it didn’t spill over into meaningful human connection for us. And our commitment to the far-away church prevented us from forming those connections with those in our own backyard.

It sucks to be on yet another quest to find a church. I’m sick of vanilla ice cream, to be honest.

There have been times in our lives we’ve been launched on this journey because of rotten doctrine or leadership sin (pastoral embezzlement, porn addiction, or flaming nepotism). Or at least that’s what I thought the reason was. I’m pretty convinced that a sense of committed spiritual community can carry a group of friends through a lousy season of leadership or even a flirtation with heresy.

My question at the beginning of this post might be a bit of a false dichotomy. “An ideal church service” is an hour or so each week. What we’re searching for are people who want to be the church – together in mission, aching for the Bridegroom – all 168 hours each week.

How about you? What has launched you in your search for a new church community?

Browse Our Archives